Convene a group of golf geeks to debate seminal moments in American golf, and you know the likely nominees. There will be Ouimet’s win at Brookline, Jones taking the grand slam at Merion, the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills and a few nominations for the 1986 and 1997 Masters.
One event won’t get a mention, but it forever shaped the American game: the 1929 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach.
Ninety years ago, that championship was played just over a month before the market crashed, spawned national headlines and changed the course of golf history. The winner received a ticker tape parade. Bobby Jones, the favorite, was prevented from winning three in a row but ventured off to play the courses of his eventual co-designer for Augusta National. The 1929 U.S. Amateur also introduced the country to golf west of the Mississippi on a course that would become America’s national golfing treasure. And in one last odd twist, it fueled Jack Nicklaus’ mastery of Pebble Beach in his 1961 and 1972 wins there.
The story started nearly 15 years prior to the amateur when Samuel Morse began developing a 17-mile dirt road amidst a stunning meeting of land and sea. For the golf portion, he tried to get C.B. Macdonald and Donald Ross to come west and build something better than the Old Del Monte Lodge course. Instead, he turned to amateur golfer Jack Neville, but not before rejecting an initial routing that put homes on the cliff tops and golf behind them.
Neville called in Scottish great Douglas Grant, and they ultimately are credited with the Pebble Beach Golf Links of 1919 and beyond, an oddly unattractive, poorly conditioned and excessively difficult course that might have sunk Morse’s development if not for the scenery.
Roger Lapham, a businessman, founding member of Cypress Point and eventual mayor of San Francisco, convinced the USGA to bring the U.S. Amateur west in 1929 but demanded changes to the course. The eighth and 13th holes had been remodeled by Alister MacKenzie in an apparent audition, though he did not get the job. Instead, a three-man committee would “prepare the course” for legends such as Bobby Jones and Francis Ouimet.
First to accept Lapham’s consulting invitation was Robert Hunter, co-architect of Cypress Point who had gained valuable 17 Mile Drive construction expertise and political savvy in serving as middleman between bickering artists Morse and MacKenzie.
Lapham then tapped amateur golfing great Chandler Egan, an emerging architect who was not nearly as accomplished as MacKenzie or Hunter, to head the group, with superintendent Joe Mayo rounding out the committee.
Egan, however, was a man of undisputed character with an astounding resume likely to charm the USGA: Harvard graduate who led the Crimson to three NCAA team championships and one individual title; winner of back-to back U.S. Amateurs; gold (team) and silver (individual) Olympic medalist in golf at the 1904 St. Louis Games; a lifelong amateur golfer who retired after a 1909 U.S. Amateur finals loss to buy an apple and pear orchard in Oregon, only to be lured out of competitive retirement in 1914.
Egan jumped into the task, setting up shop on site to transform the rudimentary design into a strategic and aesthetic masterpiece. He penned stories leading into the 1929 U.S. Amateur and then proceeded to qualify for the Round of 32, knocking off George Von Elm, the 1926 U.S. Amateur winner and last person to beat Jones heading into the Pebble Beach major.
The next day, Egan routed Jess Sweetser, another former U.S. and British Amateur champion, 6 and 5. Egan eventually lost in the semifinals in easily the greatest performance by an architect over a course he had designed.
On the other side of the draw, Jones was upset by 19-year-old Johnny Goodman in the first round of match play. The loss, which brought out big, bold headlines on sports pages and ended a remarkable streak in the U.S. Amateur of three wins and a finalist appearance of four years, allowed Jones to play at opening day of Pasatiempo. He was invited by founder Marion Hollins, who had developed and hosted Jones at nearby Cypress Point.
MacKenzie tagged along and just three years later, their co-design of Augusta National opened. It’s safe to say the train trip out West was not a waste of Jones’ time. Gwk
(Note: This story appeared in the June 2019 issue of Golfweek.)